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Class-action tobacco suit shifts to U.S. court

Utah's first class action lawsuit against the big tobacco companies has been moved from state to federal court.

The lawsuit was originally filed in 4th District Court in Provo on behalf of three Utah County teenagers and all people "similarly situated."It accused 19 tobacco companies of misrepresenting the risks of smoking, fraud, breach of duty to prevent minors from obtaining tobacco and marketing defective or dangerous products.

Attorneys B. Seth Bailey and H. Deloyd Bailey said the suit focused on young plaintiffs because "they are the most vulnerable." The action, which the lawyers said could include 30,000 underage smokers in Utah, seeks up to $75,000 per plaintiff.

On Friday, attorneys for the tobacco companies filed a notice of removal from state court to U.S. District Court. They said the lawsuit belongs in federal court based on diversity of jurisdiction and the amount of damages being sought.

According to the tobacco firms, the Baileys' lawsuit "tried to defeat federal jurisdiction" by disclaiming any damages in excess of $75,000 per plaintiff. They said the "disingenuousness of the purported limit" on the damages was revealed in a Feb. 18 article in the Deseret News in which the attorneys said the suit could involve a judgment of more than $2 billion.

Also, the tobacco lawyers noted that none of the defendants are Utah residents.

Meanwhile, a second lawsuit filed three weeks after the Utah County case remains in 3rd District Court. In that suit, four adults accused cigarette manufacturers of selling a defective product and conspiring to conceal the addictive power of nicotine.

A trio of law firms is seeking class-action status for the 3rd District Court suit to include the claims of all nicotine-dependent Utahns and the families of those who have died.

The suit demands that the tobacco industry establish a medical monitoring fund for smokers, finance smoking-cessation programs and disgorge at least five years of gross revenues from cigarette sales in Utah. It also seeks punitive damages. The plaintiffs lawyers said the total sought could top $1 billion.

Also pending is the state's lawsuit against the tobacco companies. That action, which seeks reimbursement of tobacco-related Medicaid payments, is part of a proposed $368.5 billion settlement that's being debated in Congress. If the national settlement falls apart, Utah and other states will likely proceed with their individual litigation.